A remarkable scene occurred Wednesday night in Guadalajara, Mexico at the championship event of the Women’s Tennis Association’s season.
After Barbora Krejcikova won the doubles title with her Czech partner Katerina Siniakova, she stood in front of Martina Navratilova at the trophy ceremony and spoke about the 32nd anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, a series of demonstrations that ultimately helped bring down the communist, non-democratic government in Czechoslovakia that Navratilova was forced to escape from in 1975.
“Thanks to them and their sacrifice, today my generation can live in a beautiful country back home and live without any restrictions and also with freedom,” Krejcikova said as Navratilova wiped away tears in the background.
It wasn’t lost on anyone who follows tennis that this incredible moment occurred at a tournament that, if not for COVID-19, would have been held in Shenzhen, a Chinese city of 17 million just across the border from Hong Kong.
If there was any sports league that had reason to kowtow to Chinese censorship and look the other way on human rights, it was the WTA. Over two months in the fall of 2019, the WTA sanctioned eight tournaments in China totaling almost $30 million in prize money, an amount that would be difficult to equal in other parts of the world.
When Ash Barty won the WTA Finals singles title, she took home $4.42 million — significantly more than the $2.6 million payday for winning the French Open earlier that year. For women’s tennis, the choice to park their tour in China between the U.S. Open and the Australian Open did not look like a luxury but rather a necessary element of doing business that made a lot of people a lot of money.
But in the wake of former Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance after she alleged that a former government official sexually assaulted her, the WTA is embracing a fundamental truth that the rest of sports has tried desperately to avoid. When it comes to China’s abuses, there are only two choices: Either you sign up for the lies or you walk away.
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It is now clear that the WTA will be the first sports organization with the courage to do the latter.
In an interview Thursday night with CNN’s Erin Burnett, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon doubled down on the notion that Shuai’s disappearance could be the breaking point between women’s tennis and China regardless of the financial ramifications.
“When you look at this, there’s too many times in our world today where we get into issues like this where we let business, politics money dictate what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “When we have a young person who has the fortitude to step up and make these allegations, knowing full well what the results of that are going to be, for us to not support that and demand justice as we go through it, we have to start as a world making decisions that are based upon right and wrong, period and we can’t compromise that and we’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it because this is certainly bigger than the business.”
Like every major sport, tennis wants to tap into the Chinese marketplace. Just like Yao Ming helped the NBA gain a significant foothold financially and culturally in China, it was a massive deal for tennis when Li Na won the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open. Though not as reliant on China as the women’s tour, the ATP also had a three-week fall swing through the country culminating with a Masters 1000 series event in Shanghai.
You can understand from a business perspective why no Western company wants to close those doors. Challenging or offending the Chinese government can have very real consequences, as Philadelphia 76ers (and former Houston Rockets) general manager Daryl Morey did with a pro-democracy tweet about Hong Kong that would be completely anodyne to American sensibilities.
Even last month, the NBA’s Chinese streaming partner Tencent pulled Boston Celtics games off the air after Enes Kanter called Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” in a video promoting independence for Tibet.
But with a famous athlete’s life at stake, the Shuai situation has made it increasingly clear that there’s no amount of toe-tapping or diplomatically-worded statements that will preserve any semblance of appropriate balance between the values of Western sports and Chinese repression.
It is the job of governments to make trade agreements and preserve world peace. It is not the job of the NBA or the IOC or any other sports organization to do make-believe diplomacy through sports when their actual objective is pocketing as much money as they can.
In a sense, the pandemic has accidentally showed how unnecessary it is to keep this con going in the name of Chinese appeasement.
Though there have been some holes in the fall schedules of both the men’s and women’s tennis tours — and certainly less money up for grabs — they’ve learned to live without China over the last two years.
It’s no small matter that instead playing for a $14 million prize money pool in Shenzhen, the top-ranked women played for $5 million this week in Guadalajara. But the way China has tried to hide and distort Shuai’s accusations while nobody in women’s tennis can guarantee her safety has crystalized the choice that must be made.
“If we have to detach ourselves from China because it no longer sticks to our values, we have to do it even if we are losing a little economically,” French player Alize Cornet told the French publication L’Equipe. “There are enormous sums at stake but we cannot remain silent for the purse money.”
Whatever it will cost the WTA to break up with China, the value of being freed to the truth is far greater. No sports organization can coerce the Chinese government to do what’s right, but women’s tennis is proving that you don’t have to be complicit in whitewashing what’s wrong.